On the trail of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters in the UK's museums and heritage sites

By Richard Moss | 01 November 2005 | Updated: 05 November 2015

Follow Culture24's Gunpowder Plot Trail and find out more about the plot and the plotters in UK museums, stately homes and heritage sites

an engraving ot the Gunpowder Plotters wearing hats and beards of the early Stuart period
The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605 (Thomas Bates; Robert Winter; Christopher Wright; John Wright; Thomas Percy; Guy Fawkes; Robert Catesby; Thomas Winter) circa 1605, believed to be by Crispijn van de Passe. Missing are Digby, Keyes, Rookwood, Grant, and Tresham© National Portrait Gallery, London

With November 5 once again upon us we invite you to get back on the trail of Fawkes, Catesby and their followers by following this guide to museums, stately homes and heritage sites where you can explore one of the most notorious attempted acts of terrorism in British history.

In November 1605 a small group of men, including Guy Fawkes, attempted to assassinate the King of England and Scotland and all the nobles, bishops, and members of the House of Commons in one fell swoop.

The plan involved hiding 36 barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords, to be detonated at the time of the State Opening of Parliament. Four centuries later this event is still commemorated by bonfires and fireworks.

Who were these men and why did they plan such a stupendous act of treason? Why did November 5 become such a significant date in the calendar? What relevance does this event have for our own times?


Shows an old manuscript

The House of Commons journal where the capture of Guy Fawkes is recorded. Photo Parliament and Treason 1605 exhibition.

The logical place to begin finding the answers is at the Palace of Westminster – the scene of the planned attack and the arrest of Guy Fawkes.

In 1605 the Palace of Westminster was a complex of medieval buildings grouped around Westminster Hall, originally a royal palace. Following a fire in 1512 the Palace was abandoned by monarchs and became the site of a variety of government offices, including the Royal Courts of Justice.

The best way to understand the layout of this complex as it was in 1604 is to visit the Parliament UK website, which has some fascinating digitised examples of documents and plans from the Parliamentary Archives.

Included are period plans of the cellars where Fawkes stashed his deadly load of gunpowder and drawings which offer a fascinating insight into how the buildings that housed parliament at that time looked.

Shows a photo of a man dressed as Guy Fawkes in black cloak and tall hat placing one barrel next to another in a dark stone room

See more relics from the era of the Gunpowder Plot at the Tower of London © Historic Royal Palaces.

The plotters initially rented a house to the side of the House of Lords and tried to dig a tunnel underneath the building to hold the gunpowder but this proved too difficult a task.

In March 1605 they managed instead to rent a basement storeroom - often referred to as a cellar - directly underneath the House of Lords. After a series of postponements Parliament's opening was finally set for 5 November 1605. By then Guy Fawkes had arranged 36 barrels of gunpowder in place in the storeroom.

What happened next was a mixture of intrigue and, for king and parliament, a large slice of good fortune.

A letter sent to Catholic nobleman, Lord Monteagle, warning him not to attend the state opening of parliament made its way to the government. After some prevarication, Royal officials found Fawkes and his gunpowder on the evening of November 4 1605.

a painting showing two men tussling with a third man dressed in black hat and cape

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Henry Perronet Briggs © 1823 Laing Art Gallery (Tyne and Wear Museums)

An early Victorian interpretation of the moment of Fawkes' capture can be seen in a painting held by the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot by Henry Perronet Briggs dates from 1832 and shows Sir Thomas Knyvett and Edward Doubleday arresting Guy Fawkes - replete with pointy beard, moustache and large floppy hat - in a dramatically lit cellar. For a detailed look at this painting see the Gunpowder Plot 400 website.

Fawkes' Lantern

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is now home to one of the most historic artefacts relating to the arrest of Guy Fawkes.

Guy Fawkes’ Lantern, made of sheet iron, was donated to Oxford University in 1641 by Robert Heywood, 36 years after the Gunpowder Plot was foiled.

Heywood was the son of a Justice of the Peace present at Fawkes’ arrest in the cellars under the House of Lords. The lantern is typical of the period and could be closed completely to hide the light, and although some scholars have questioned the lantern's veracity, anyone who has seen it would agree that it is easy to imagine Fawkes sneaking around with it in the cellars before his capture.

a photograph of a metal lantern

The lantern Guy Fawkes' was found with when he was caught red-handed below the Houses of Parliament can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum. Photo Ashmolean Museum

The Tower of London

Following the arrest of Fawkes, the Tower of London played a key role in the Gunpowder Plot story. The explosives planted under the House of Lords were sent to the Tower after the discovery, the leading conspirators were imprisoned there and Guy Fawkes was interrogated and tortured there. Seven conspirators including Fawkes left the Tower gates for execution.

At The Royal Armouries, which occupies several floors of the impressive White Tower at the Tower of London, you can also see the remains of the gunpowder kegs that were stored there until an almost catastrophic fire in the 1700s caused them to be removed. You can also see armour and other relics from the period including items associated with King James I.

Shows a photograph of a painting of King James I.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland after John De Critz the Elder. Oil on panel, early 17th century (circa 1606). © National Portrait Gallery, London.

If you want to put names to faces, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is the place to go. The NPG holds the famous image of the plotters drawn by an artist now thought to be Crispijn van de Passe in 1606 as well as a gory etching of the execution of Guy Fawkes by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscherand.

Further portraits and paintings that provide an essential visual context for the events commemorated on bonfire night can be found by using the NPG's search the collection facility and entering search terms Guy Fawkes, King James, Robert Cecil.

For a full cast of the plotters see the Parliament UK website.

shows a fragment of parchment in close up with a very faint and weakly written signature on it.

The post-torture signature of Guy Fawkes can be seen in the context of the document it is written upon. From an exhibition at the National Archives. © National Archives.

Another famous image of the Gunpowder Plot is the confession signature of Guido Fawkes. There is perhaps no better way of bringing home the brutality of the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot than by gazing on the shattered handwriting of Guy Fawkes on his confession document.

The signed confessions are held by the National Archives at Kew and can be viewed online at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk together with other material that explores the history of the Gunpowder Plot.

shows a cartoon of an explosion inside a building with men and material flying in all directions.

Fawkes manages to blow the whole Palace of Westminster sky-high in this Victorian toy-theatre playbill. © London Museums.

At the Museum in Docklands they have some interesting Toy Theatre handbills from the nineteenth century that shed some light on the changing public perception of Fawkes and his fellow conspirators.

Fawkes was a popular subject in Victorian toy theatre and in one version of the story he manages to blow the Palace of Westminster sky-high and make good his escape!

Houses of the Catholic aristocracy

shows a photograph of a large country house built in an Elizabethan or Jacobean style.

Catesby and another conspirator had links with Coughton Court. © Coughton Estate.

Amidst the UK's stately homes that shed some light on the turbulent times 400 years ago Coughton Court remains as one of the great Tudor Houses and the ancestral home of the Throckmorton Family, of which four of the plotters were members.

Robert Catesby and his fellow conspirator Francis Tresham were the sons of sisters Anne and Muriel Throckmorton. The Throckmortons became leading instigators of the Catholic emancipation following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. For many years there was an illegal chapel in the house, and a priest's hiding hole which can still be seen today from the Tower room.

Contact the house via their website for more information at www.coughtoncourt.co.uk

shows a photograph of a large country house set against a blue sky with a large green lawn in front.

Syon House. © Syon House Estate.

Although his title was from the north of England, Henry Percy, the 9th Duke of Northumberland had estates in the south at Petworth House and at Syon House, a magnificent Jacobean mansion a few miles north of Richmond-upon-Thames.

The Percys were a very powerful family whose attachment to Catholicism had already made them exceptionally dangerous in the eyes of the government of Elizabeth I. The seventh earl had been executed in 1572 for his role in a rebellion in 1570; the eighth earl died in the Tower of London in 1585, where he was being held under suspicion of involvement in a plot to free Mary Queen of Scots from imprisonment

The links between this Catholic family and the plotters centres on the relationship between the Earl and his tearaway cousin, the plotter Thomas Percy. It was a link that was to ultimately see Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland imprisoned in the Tower for 17 years.

It was at Syon House on November 4 1605 that Henry and Thomas Percy dined together on the eve of the plot discovery, 400 years ago.

Shows a photograph of three men shaking hands in Westminster Hall, London.

The Marquess of Salisbury (left), Peter Knyvett (centre) and the Duke of Northumberland, descendants of men associated with the plot, met for a ceremonial reconciliation in Westminster Hall during 2005. © 24 Hour Museum.

Another house belonging to the Percys can be explored at Petworth in West Sussex. Petworth House was in the hands of the Percy family from the 11th century onwards, although the current mansion dates to the 17th century.

Upon his release from the Tower of London, the 9th Duke of Northumberland spent much of his time at Petworth and it was here that he died, aged 68, in 1632.

a photograph of stately home taken from across a lake

Alnwick is the idyllic setting for an informative exhibition about the plotter Thomas Percy. © Alnwick Estate.

Alnwick House was the 9th Duke of Northumberland’s northern residence and it still is for the current Duke. In 1605 it was supervised by his nephew, the plotter Thomas Percy, in his role as constable.

The house is also home to several letters, documents and artefacts dating from 1550 to 1622, the ten years that Thomas Percy spent at Alnwick as an officer of the 9th Earl of Northumberland.

The authorities caught up with the conspirators on the morning of Friday 8 November at Holbeach House near Kingswinford in Staffordshire. There was a brief shoot-out during which Catesby, Christopher and Jack Wright and Thomas Percy were killed. Thomas Winter and Ambrose Rookwood were captured and brought to London. The heads of Catesby and Percy were cut off and displayed from the roof of the House of Commons.

There are other country houses which became embroiled in these turbulent times - as landed families either continued their support of the Catholic faith or rallied in support of the Protestant King James I. Visit the National Trust website for more information on where to find them.

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